Transformation in India Part I
Excerpt from Chapter Five of forthcoming book – Trailing Sky Six Feathers.
Streaming video of “Cremation Pyres on the Ganges” – text, photos and voice – http://www.ianprattis.com/poemmovies/cremationpyrepoem.htm
We are so happy Ian that you have decided to die with us in India. And even more happy if you live.”
Huddled on a bed in an ashram in Mumbai, India I opened my eyes to see a visiting Swami sitting beside me. I felt very calm about letting go of my bodily existence. I knew that the experiences of joy and freedom flooding through me at this time were dissolving my many mistakes and bodily pain. Trailing Sky was there constantly – I even wrote in my India diary and notes that there was a female deity orchestrating all the energies to keep me alive. Not realizing, until reviewing my diaries years later, that Trailing Sky was staring me in the face, challenging me to acknowledge who it was that saved my life in India. She must have been exasperated with how dense and unseeing I was at that time.
I had traveled to India in 1996 to teach and train in Siddha Samadhi Yoga. The Vedic tradition I was studying was ecumenical in character, a wisdom tradition totally relevant to the modern day. The ashram in Mumbai was reserved for saints and holy men. I did not qualify for either category. Lying close to death, the lack of fear provided a sense of freedom and strength. At last I felt truly like me, very peaceful, no longer a maverick standing alone. I did survive and completed my guru training six months later at a remote ashram, going into total silence during the last two weeks. Before I took my leave from the ashram the Swami arranged a parting ceremony – an initiation to receive the mantle of the guru that I was now recognized as.
In November and December of 1996 I had become seriously ill in India. As I observed my bodily systems crashing one by one I knew there was a distinct possibility of death. To this day I am still amazed by my calmness and lack of fear. In my family and culture there is very little discussion about death and dying, though as a child I did have an intuitive understanding. When my grandfather died I felt him as a tangible presence when he was in his coffin. I quietly whispered to this gracious being: “Go to Heaven now grandpa.” I also remember at his wake how upset I became by my relatives drinking, arguing and being disrespectful to one another. In tears I sought out my grandmother and complained that everyone was making it hard for my grandpa to go to Heaven. She listened carefully to me and wiped my tears away, then walked into the living room of her house and with quiet authority asked everyone to go home. It was much later in life, once I was exposed to Buddhist teachings on death and dying, that I realized I was not such a crazy kid after all. I had cared for my grandfather’s consciousness after his physical death.
While in India I also trained in the mastery of “bija” mantra. Bija means “seed” and the seed mantras are powerful instruments of transformation. The major mantra I trained with, however, was the Gayatri Mantra, the main feature of the Sandhya–Upasana ceremony – a sacred ritual for Brahmanic definitions within Hinduism. It was part of my training in becoming a guru in Siddha Samadhi Yoga. The Gayatri is considered by Indian sages to be the most powerful mantra of purification and transformation, as it expands consciousness in multiple directions. The successive sounds of the Sanskrit syllables move the individual chanting it into elevated states of spiritual experience. As an invocation for enlightenment it has the effect of drawing other individuals into the same state. This is the theory – as told to me in India.
Two twenty eight day training periods, six months apart, were the high points that the rest of my training built up to. My cultural and religious background was not the same as my two cohorts, yet the experiences we shared were remarkably similar. I could observe my mental states, compare them with reports from my peers, then verify them with the Swami overseeing the training. Then from my experience, I could verify – or not – the claims made about the Gayatri mantra. The Gayatri ceremony was conducted at sunrise and sunset each day. The mantra was the central component of a long Sanskrit chant that prepared each one of us to experience the full effects of Gayatri. Prior to the training retreats I had months of preparation – with attention to specific meditations, dietary regime and sexual abstinence. I learned how to chant the Gayatri and co-ordinate it with the four components of breath: inhalation, holding the air inside, exhalation, holding the emptiness. There was a mathematical precision in tone, pitch and resonance of the mantra, as it was exactly co-ordinated with the different components of breath and hand movements over the body. It was all quite complex and overwhelming and I frequently wondered if I would ever get it right. I benefited from the persistence and encouragement of my cohorts who were determined that I not be left behind. I also had skilled and patient teachers who made the effort to transmit this oral tradition, thousands of years old, to a westerner not used to this form of education.
Our preparation for each ceremony was through extensive pranayama – breathing exercises – before sunrise and sunset. Attention was always brought to the union of the individual with the Universal. The rituals of the Gayatri ceremony had to be performed with grace, and clumsiness was frowned upon. In the early days I certainly drew a lot of frowns from the Swami and Rishi who oversaw the training. The effects on me were far reaching. During the first training period the twice-daily recitation brought on heavy night-time fevers. I would feel perfectly fine during the day, yet at night it felt as though I was running a high fever, although there was no unusual increase in temperature. I found that my peers were feeling similar discomfort, though nobody was ill. I asked the Swami about this. He indicated that we were all feeling the initial effects of the Gayatri Sandhya. Before it could penetrate our being and expand consciousness there was a great deal of “dross” to burn off – hence the fever-like states. I reported back to everyone’s relief.
My consultations with the Swami became quite an amusing ritual, as members of my cohort would not ask questions. Yet they encouraged me to do so and gave me questions of their own. It became a way to check my experience with that of others, and then seek verification from the Swami, who had quite a benevolent attitude towards me. My fellow trainees would wait for the results of my consultations, crowd round and listen to whatever I had to report. We would then discuss it from the perspective of our own experiences. It was amazing at how similar they were. I felt it wise to always give my experiences last, so as not to provide an influence or “track” for others’ reporting.
The most significant cognitive changes came about when chanting the Gayatri with the different phases of breath and levels of mantra. These combinations produced hyper-lucidity and sharpness. This sharpness was essential for me, because there was so much to co-ordinate at different levels. I felt very alert, as though I was climbing stairs of consciousness. This was similar to the experiences of my shamanic training with White Eagle Woman. I was moving through states of consciousness to different levels of cognition but always felt a sense of being aware of where I was, of what was taking place in the multiple levels of consciousness experienced. New spaces were opening up in my mind, while I was also very aware of being located in the physical realm – an insight confirmed by the Swami without my asking. Not all members of my cohort experienced this aspect of dual consciousness. The Swami was on the lookout for trainees who got “stuck” and had difficulty returning. He also confided that he had fully expected me to be the one he had to look out for the most and was pleased that this was not so. Me too.
The second training period was with a different cohort in a different part of India – Karnataka as opposed to Andra Pradesh. My new cohort was made up of experienced meditation teachers and exceptional gurus – quite the lineup of wisdom. With this powerful group of beings the sunset ceremony was conducted by running water to deepen the silence, stillness and penetration of the mantra. The chanting of the Gayatri took place with all of us standing up to our waists in the water. When it came to the point of suspending thought and allowing the Gayatri to arise spontaneously, to my total astonishment it did just that. At the same time I could feel and identify the particles of mud between my toes, see minute electrons in the air and look down on my wisdom buddies from a great height. I felt encompassed by the evening sky and at the same time I encompassed the sunset, the evening sky and everything beyond it. This experience was repeated with varying intensity during every sunset rendition of the Gayatri-Sandhya. I never felt it necessary to communicate this to the Swami or to members of my second cohort. I went into total silence during the last two weeks and do not recall talking to anyone, as everyone very carefully left me in the silence.
In my diaries I recorded my experiences in poetry and art – a totally inadequate exposition for something that cannot be fully expressed in either. I persist with this inadequacy, through words, to convey some semblance of the experience. Before I took my leave from the ashram the Swami asked to speak to me. He described my experiences in complete, precise detail and arranged a parting ceremony – an initiation to receive the grace of a guru through the name assigned to me: Prem Chaitania. My wisdom buddies were delighted by this. My teachers informed me that the Gayatri would continue to work on my consciousness, whether I was aware of it or not. Any awareness would provide an arrow of insight into further changes. There were other perceptual and cognitive experiences that I am not at liberty to communicate, and still others that I choose not to relate. Training with Gayatri had major life changing effects, not the least being that I became a better and more skillful teacher, both to meditation and university students. As for the rest of my life – that it is still a work in progress!
What I can say from personal experience is that once my wild mind was reined in, clarity and compassion were suddenly there in greater compass. This provided a different basis for how to be with the planet and others in a new way. It was how to move from the Seventh Fire to the Eighth Fire – the Seven Fires Prophecy learned from Grandfather William Commanda. Whatever it takes to tame the wild mind. This partial account of my journey in India is to demonstrate that my activism for peace, planetary care and social justice now came from a different place as a result of the internal work. Steadiness, clarity and compassion are there rather than ego posturing from the lunatic fringe. Though there was a “rush” from the latter, I prefer the still-point, uncoloured by the excess of ego and desire for control and kudos-seeking. Such a still-point permits me to be free in my own sovereignty, no matter what I am doing. It also propels me to serve the planet and humanity in a way of creating bridges and pathways of harmony that make sense – to make the Eighth Fire a reality rather than a prophecy. My work in progress is ongoing, anchored by the presence of Trailing Sky throughout my journeys. I have no doubt about her presence throughout my process of healing and transformation and know she was waiting throughout the shadows of my life.